Lead by Example: Villiger Cigars North America’s Rene Castañeda

Rene Castañeda of Villiger Cigars North America shares the lessons he’s learned about leadership and how humility and working hard can be powerful motivators for every team.

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Rene Castaneda, President of Villiger Cigars North America

A business is only as successful as the person who leads it. Rene Castañeda, president of Villiger Cigars North America, has spent the past two years coming up with solutions for the company’s problems. In 2016, Villiger Cigars North America had gotten off track. There was a massive public overhaul of the company’s management; the company needed to grow, but it also needed to become financially stable. It needed a new leader, and Castañeda was tapped for the position.

Castañeda lost no time bringing the company back on track with a strong portfolio of tobacco products on the market. Recently, Tobacco Business sat down with Castañeda to discuss his career, how he turned things around for Villiger and get some tips for other professionals taking on positions of leadership in the industry.

Rene Castaneda, President of Villiger Cigars North America
Rene Castañeda, President of Villiger Cigars North America

LEARN TO RELATE TO PEOPLE
Castañeda began working in the tobacco industry in 1997, during the Cigar Boom, starting off as operations manager for Miami Cigar & Co. Gradually, he moved into sales and was later promoted to vice president of sales and marketing. The first lesson in leadership Castañeda learned was to identify opportunities and embrace them.

Castañeda never imagined he would be the president of a premium cigar company almost two decades after accepting that first position at Miami Cigar & Co. “When I started, I didn’t know anything about cigars. I didn’t even smoke,” he confessed. “I soon caught the tobacco bug, and once that tobacco bug bites, it never lets you go.”

Every position Castañeda has held in the premium cigar industry has contributed to his overall professional development. Each one offered him the chance to better understand tobacco products, to learn to value the consumers, and to help educate him on all the moving parts and intricacies of the industry. The most important lesson he learned, however, is one that he relies on the most as the president of a company: how to better relate to people.

“I am lucky to have traveled extensively during my years in the industry,” he says. “Because of that, I have been fortunate enough to meet all kinds of people from all walks of life. Being able to relate to colleagues, customers, employees and partners is vital.”

LEADERS MUST BE RATIONAL
When Castañeda joined Villiger Cigars North America as its president, he had to get up to speed on the company quickly. Plagued by numerous issues, Villiger needed a leader who was ready to act and offer solutions to the company’s problems. Failing to do so would have put the company and its future in serious jeopardy.

Castañeda’s advice to other leaders facing big challenges is to confront the facts and the problems and to accept reality. “When you face difficult situations, facts are better than dreams,” says Castañeda. Once a leader is able to do this, he or she is able to make good decisions and methodically address each of them.

WORK HARD AND STAY HUMBLE
After two years serving as Villiger’s president, Castañeda reports that the company is focused on performance, has ambitious goals and has become very pragmatic. All of these attributes reflect the change in its leadership. Castañeda, who believes that leadership is something everyone is capable of, says that leaders should never stop learning, must slow down and take time to think, and must listen to their teams. For those who may not yet be in managerial or leadership positions but aspire to be, he offers two simple pieces of advice: Be humble and work hard.

“You don’t need to pretend to have all the answers, but you need to be humble enough to learn from the masters,” he says. “There is always somebody better than you in any field, and you have to be able to recognize this and learn from them. At the same time, you have to pay your dues and work hard to build up knowledge and experience, which could take several years.”

As Castañeda has learned, leadership is an evolving process—and not one that is just about the individual, but rather about the overall team. Looking ahead to 2018, he plans to continue to drive growth for Villiger Cigars North America. To do so, he makes sure that Villiger’s entire team knows what the company’s long-term goals are and where it hopes to go by including every employee in conversations, discussions and plans.

“Our motto in the office is that Villiger is a marathon, not a sprint,” he explains. “Villiger has almost 130 years of history—we didn’t reach that milestone through short-term thinking.”

This story first appeared in the January/February 2018 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.

– Story by Antoine Reid, an editor and digital content director for Tobacco Business Magazine. You can follow him on Instagram @editor.reid

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